What is Media Literacy?

I recently moved to the Hague with my boyfriend after spending a year in Amsterdam. We’d been in a long distance relationship and I decided to take the big leap last year and move over from the UK, to see how things would go. One year on and we’re still going strong, so we decided to get a slightly bigger place in a new city and really make a home together.

It’s been fun re-decorating and negotiating what looks nice where, however we’ve also spent a lot of time going back and forth to various department and hardware stores over the past month, for lamps, shelves, paint, cleaning products… While out shopping in the Dutch department store HEMA one day last week (I believe on this occasion it was a new dustbin we needed..) the song “Man Down” by Rihanna came on. My boyfriend commented that the song was ridiculous. Immediately, I fired back “This is a song about a woman being assaulted and how she takes revenge. And you find it ridiculous?” Silence. Then: “But you don’t mind admitting that you like the song “Brown Sugar” which glorifies slave rape?” He makes a face.

This isn’t exactly a new discussion between us. He has been a life-long fan of the Rolling Stones and when I first suggested that their music was a rip off and potentially destructive, he became defensive. Later on, at PLUG (a media literacy reading group that I co-ordinate with Dutch cultural critic Egbert Martina), we analysed the RS song “Brown Sugar” as a case-study, in a session that focused on Interracial Relationships. In case you were wondering, we quickly established that we were not prepared to take seriously any notions that the song was written about heroin, given the explicit lyrics.

We discussed white artists – such as the Rolling Stones – and their usage of Black bodies for flare or eroticism in their work. One white male group member asked us if the song could be considered to have been written with any irony? The response was more or less, even if Richards and Jagger were trying to be ironic about the nature of white male and black female interactions during the slave era in the USA, it is not necessarily their place, nor their right to use black bodies in this manner, where they create an image of the black body that could be (and has been) considered cool and sexy by their fans. In short, why should I (as a woman of colour) be here to inspire anyone artistically? And why should my heritage be sung about so casually by someone who, quite frankly, has already benefited enough from my ancestors’ suffering? Am I to stand back uncritically when I see this happen? Of course not!

While one group member commented that she felt squeamish about the exploitation of black bodies and black suffering in music and art work by white individuals, my boyfriend admitted than he had always realised that the song was about sexing up a black female, rather than shooting up, and could also hear the implications of slave rape in the lyrics, but nonetheless was a big fan of the group and had in the past enjoyed listening song. He said this, in a room full of people, just moments after he had introduced himself as being in a mixed race relationship with me, a woman of African America descent…

I couldn’t help rolling my eyes in dismay and when we got home I asked him: “Doesn’t it ever occur to you that maybe the reason you’re attracted to me, is because of the messages you’ve internalised by listening to songs like Brown Sugar?” He disagreed profusely. Of course he wasn’t attracted to me because Mick Jagger sings about sexy slaves! The reality is, I believe him when he tells me that his love for me doesn’t come from perverse, neo-colonial imagery. I also believe him when he tells me that since becoming even slightly more media literate, he has begun to re-evaluate some of the artistic creations he previously indulged in. When we are out and about, watching a movie or telly and even having a simple conversation with his folks, he increasingly picks up on the racial slurs that I have had to deal with all my life. It can be lonely in an interracial relationship to have to keep the things that upset you to yourself and therefore it’s a relief that he understand what I go through when I see certain ad campaigns (for instance Calve’s Indian Princess), even if his comprehension is limited.

This new found understanding, due to an increased interest in media literacy doesn’t mean that he should just stop listening to the Rolling Stones. That’s not the point. Rather, the point is to acknowledge where the image comes from (who made it, for who, under what circumstances, etc) and also acknowledge your own positionality and privilege when consuming certain forms of media. This means, understanding that as a white male, when you approve music made by other white males, within this imagined Western space, you not only create a platform for patriarchal voices, you expand the existing ones. When, as a white male, you criticise and/or limit the voice of a woman or women of colour, you increase her existing socio-political marginalisation. It’s not enough to claim that you were just listening to the melody or the beat and not paying much attention to the lyrics, in either case. As a media literacist, one needs to pay attention to detail to understanding insightfully the message being sent out into the world. The same can be said for those making the music. You can’t sing about slave rape from a neutral position and therefore cannot claim that you are being ironic or cynical.

The conversation my boyfriend and I had in the HEMA that day, following his off the cuff remark about the Rihanna song gave us both a much clearer understanding of what it means to be media literate: to understand one’s privilege and one’s positionality, and how this becomes part of media making. I am hoping that this discovery will help us both to guide and respect each other as partners, but also as members of a wider community of people, who like us, know that every song has an important message.

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